Chapter 4

I opened my eyes only to shut them closed once again. The sun was shining through the canopy of trees above my head and a ray of light was falling directly across my eyes. Groaning, I turned to the side and slowly blinked to clear my vision. After a rather large yawn I looked around the little clearing. I noted the burnt out embers and the clothes neatly folded by my "bed." Momentarily disregarding them I turned to glance around me. The clearing was small, and dimly lit, aside from the few beams of sunlight that had snuck through the foliage above. There were no flowers, and the ground was covered in hard packed dirt with smatterings of tall grass. I noted a small pack on the other side of the campfire ashes and I assumed it was Benjamin's. I observed that he was nowhere to be found and shrugged it off, knowing he would at least return for his pack. Or at least I believed he would.

Shaking off my pessimism, I grabbed the clothes at my side and stood up. I fell immediately into a crouch though, as my ribs gave a dull ache and my vision went black with the blood that had just rushed to my head. Muttering I rubbed at my temples and rolled back my shoulders in an attempt to relieve their aching. After also rolling my neck a few times I picked the clothes up once more and wandered over to a random tree. Even though Benjamin wasn't in the clearing, I wasn't taking any chances.

After a brief moment I returned to the campsite in clothes very similar to Benjamin's. I had found a pair of black slip on shoes as well that fit a little tightly around my ankle, but muffled my footsteps. Also there was a pair of black cut offs that came in at my calf and were easy to move around in. Next was a light, white, long sleeve top that I had to tuck in since it was so loose. I had also discovered a leather belt with pockets and pouches attached to it that fit snugly at my waist and didn't jostle when I moved. Upon further investigation I had found a canteen, some matches, a flint and stone, and two daggers: one for carving and other menial tasks, the other obviously for self-defense. I felt strange carrying weapons on me, but I comforted myself with the fact that I didn't believe I would use them. My talent lied more in running than fighting. Upon being reminded of this, I moved towards the middle of the clearing and slowly eased into a lunge.

Letting my lids slide shut, I slowly adjusted my breathing and focused on my heart rate. I leaned towards my right and felt the tendons in my thigh stretch with my body. Eyes kept closed, I raised my left arm across my chest and held it in place with my right. After a few minutes I switched positions. When the same amount of time had passed I stood up straight and raised my arms to the sky as high as I could before bending down and easily touching the ground with the flat of my hands. Concentrating on keeping my breathing steady I didn't hear the slight rustle to my left.

"What are you doing?" Taking in a small breath of surprise I turned around, placing my right foot back a few paces in case I needed to make a break for it. Once I spotted Benjamin staring at me in some bemusement, I relaxed and slowly brought my leg back up until my feet were about shoulder width apart.

"Stretching." I answered simply, while simultaneously twisting to the side and keeping a hold on my waist. I grimaced as I felt the bruises on my skin stretch, but the crack my spine made was satisfying. "What have you been doing?" I asked suspiciously, as I took in the slight sheen of sweat on his forehead.

"Hiking." He replied, just as nonchalant as I had been. I gave him a slightly incredulous look, but he merely stared genially back. Shrugging I allowed myself to relax once more so I could close my eyes and listen to my lungs exhale and inhale. Once more I brought my hands down to the ground, but this time I let one go up in the air and I withheld a smile as a small pop filled the air, a sign of my muscles waking up. I took in another breath as I felt one of my cuts from yesterday move along my side with my skin. I just needed to focus on my breathing and stretching, not the pain. Inhale… Exhale… Inhale… Ex-

"Why are you stretching?" Irked, I straightened up and moved my hair out of my face as I looked Benjamin in the eye.

"I stretch every morning and normally every night, but last night I, obviously, didn't get the chance to. It helps me."

"With what?" I rolled my eyes at his constant questioning and sat down with my legs crossed, spreading my arms in front of me.

"Well," Inhale… "It allows me to have the chance to focus on my breathing." Exhale…. "Which gives me a better chance," Inhale… "of controlling my episodes. And," Exhale… "I never know when I'm going to need to run." Slowly I took in another deep breath and allowed myself to slowly roll upwards until my posture was straight. I was about to begin rolling my neck again when I heard a sound in front of me. Concerned, I opened my eyes only to nearly be scared to death by Benjamin crouched inches in front of me, looking serious.

"How often do you have to run, Catherine?" He asked in a low voice. I shifted, feeling uncomfortable under his gaze. Casting my eyes downwards I bit my lip and pulled at the skin around my nails. My brown hair framed my face and I unwound the twine I kept twisted around my wrist so I could braid my hair. It gave me something to do with my hands as I avoided Benjamin's probing gaze.

"It varies. When I stay in the forest it's less common unless it's time for hunting or gardening. When I get really hungry though, I have to go to town to find food. When that happens I'm lucky if I don't get spotted, let alone have to run. So on average," I made a few brief calculations in my head while chewing on my bottom lip, "I probably run every couple of days or so." I grinned at him in an attempt to lighten the serious expression on his face. "Keeps me in shape, though." He didn't look very amused.

Observing his combined look of pity, contemplation and sadness made me realize something. He didn't have to run like I did. Even though his mute was even less heard of than mine, he still wasn't the outcast I was. He still didn't understand what it was like to feel completely despised by people.

If he stuck around with me though, I thought grimly, he'd quickly learn what it felt like. Could I do that to him, just for the sake of having someone to talk to? Allow him to lead the life I led just to protect my own sanity? Because, one day, he may resent the life I brought him to and he may think my life not worth protecting anymore. I'd rather leave while he still liked me.

Sighing I rubbed the back of my neck, trying to figure out how to phrase my sudden farewell.

"Do you want to come with me, Catherine?" I looked up painfully at his new question. Well, that was unexpected. As he observed my expression I could tell he knew my answer before I could formulate a proper response.

"I don't think that –" I began, but he'd already began another form of attack as soon as he'd realized my answer.

"You won't have to run anymore."

I stared into his sincere eyes as he told me that I'd have a less problematic life. How could he say that? Did he really think it was possible to protect me from everyone? Because we'd have to run. I always had to run.

"Look, I know that you –" And once again my calm response was interrupted.

"There are others." He said softly, but his words still rang in the quiet of the forest.

"What?" I said stupidly. 'Others?' What did he mean by that? As in more of people like me? Or him?

He sighed heavily as if he had a large burden placed upon him and now seemed hesitant to continue. Like it was a last resort to tell me this. "There are… others. A mix of people. You can live with us. Somewhat normally even."

I struggled to understand what he was saying as I fought a losing battle to keep my expression stoic. 'A mix of people' meant that there were different types of people, all living together. This was completely impossible. Different colors never got along. I took a step backwards from him, feeling a little overwhelmed.

"Catherine…" He said warningly, as if knowing what I was doing. Something I wasn't even sure of.

"I just… I'm not sure that I can…" I attempted to formulate a response as confusion began to cloud my thoughts. I hadn't dealt with people in years, at least not on a civil level. I wouldn't know what to do or say. Who knew if they were as nice as Benjamin was? It was hard enough to deal with society disregarding me, what would I do if outsiders reacted in the same fashion? Knowing that I wouldn't be able to handle that kind of rejection I took a deep breath to calm myself enough to speak.

"I'm sorry, but I can't. Tha- Thank you." I said a little shakily as Benjamin looked on in surprise. Then I turned and did what I do best: I ran.

Ignoring the surprised calls from behind me I concentrated on the sound of my feet pounding down on the hard packed earth beneath me as I darted between trees and vaulted over bushes as quickly and silently as I could. I heard no sounds of pursuit, but I didn't look back to check. I merely kept running onwards, escaping from problems I didn't want to deal with. My new shirt had already accumulated some rips and dirt, and my shoes were pinching at my ankles, but I refused to stop. I wouldn't admit it to myself, but I was scared. I didn't want to be rejected again, like I had been every day since I could remember. Benjamin was the only person I'd had a civil conversation with and he's the only one in the past nine years that's ever shown kindness. It was all foreign to me, especially his mute. I could barely process that information, let alone the fact that there was a diverse mute community. It was all too much so I reverted back to what I was familiar with: the feeling of running alone; of escaping.

Deep down, I knew what scared me the most, though: that I'd no longer have only myself to rely on. In my world, developing friendships only leads to someone getting hurt.

After a few more seconds of heavy sprinting, I decided to check my surroundings before I got completely lost. For all I knew I was right on top of a district. Sighing, I leaned against a tree, letting my light breathing fill the silence as I once again felt a sense of loneliness. Blowing my bangs out of my face I glanced up at the light breaking through the canopied trees above me and I closed my eyes to soak in the sun.

"Girl! What are you doing there?" My eyes darted open and I saw that I was surrounded by a group of three women holding baskets. I spotted their yellow mutes whizzing above and as I felt the tree against my back I wanted to curse. Granza… could I just have a break for once?

"No mind. Have you seen anyone else flitting about here recently?" I looked at them suspiciously before biting my lip and shaking my head. Surreptitiously I looked about me, relieved to see that my mute was nowhere in sight for once. Who knew how long that would last, though?

"Well keep an eye out, won't you? We spotted a little black mute a little while back and we think one of the dead spots is sneaking about." I tried not to flinch at the nickname she'd used, as it was an insinuation that all black mutes were as good as dead once spotted, and I nodded like a good little girl.

"Hold on!" I stopped as I looked towards the oldest woman whose eyes were cast skyward. "Where's your mute, dear?" The other women began to look about as well before facing me again. "And why are you out here all alone?"

I gulped, not knowing what to say as the women stepped closer to me, giving me no chance to leave.

"Oh, thank Granza! You've found her!" Everyone started and I looked forward to see Benjamin standing on the edge of some bushes with a relieved smile on his face. Pushing past one of the women he enveloped me in a hug and whispered, loud enough for the women to hear, "I was so scared."

I tried to mask my confusion as the women looked at him and at each other, unsure of what to do. He turned towards them and opened his arms to them, effectively shielding me as well.

"You have found my sister and for that I thank you." I myself thanked that he was shielding me or else the women would have seen my dumbfounded expression. Sister?

The women didn't seem to buy it either.

"Why is your sister so far out here, young man?" The oldest, who seemed to be the leader of the group, asked.

"We're from the green district and we were out hunting for a black mute that had been seen in town." Which wasn't completely false, I thought. "And well, I was supposed to take care of my sister while we looked, but she gets distracted easily, you see." He said this in a way that clearly stated that I was crazy. Finally catching on, I placed a blank expression on my face while I picked a flower at Benjamin's feet and put it in his hair with a dumb smile. He patted my arm and I looked at the women who were soaking in his words.

"I was so worried about who would find her, since we haven't seen that filth." I hoped I was the only one who heard Benjamin's slight pause at the word, "I was afraid that my sister might have found them." He put a protective arm around me and gave me a worried glance that wasn't faked, "or the other way around." I swallowed, noting his implication, before I flashed a bright smile to the women who looked at me sympathetically; except for the old woman.

"Well, keep a better eye on her, young man. You never know what might be in this forest." She stared hard at him before gesturing to the other women and walking away. We both waited a moment before Benjamin released his hold on me and I slid down the tree. I had had too many close encounters lately.

"What were you thinking!" Dazedly I looked up at Benjamin to see him looking angrily down at me. "Why did you just run off like that? Did you really think I wouldn't follow you! You're lucky that your mute wasn't around because even I couldn't have talked you out of that mess and why," He looked at me in exasperation. "Why are you laughing!"

And I was laughing, albeit hysterically as I pointed up at him. "I just can't take you seriously," I gasped out between laughs, "while you have that flower in your hair." And indeed he still had the large pink flower I'd placed behind his ear and looked more than a little ridiculous. As I giggled some more though I felt his hand under my chin as he forced me to look at him. I stopped laughing and frowned down at his hand.

"Why do you keep touching me so much…?" I muttered, looking down with a frown.

"Because it's the only way you listen." He shot back, but he did let me go. Rubbing my neck I stood back up and refused to look at him.

Now what?

He seemed to be thinking the same thing as he stuck his hands in his pockets. "Come with me." He said. Sighing I twisted some hair between my fingers. Back to this, were we?

"Just because you saved me again, doesn't me I've changed my mind…" I muttered back. He grinned back at me and I glared suspiciously back.

"Yes it does, because now it means you owe me." And with that he hitched me on his back and began to walk.